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Bubonic plague - Etymology gleanings by the Oxford Etymologist for the OUPblog

Etymology gleanings for two winter months (2022-2023)

Occasionally I receive letters from our readers, and from time to time, comments follow a post, but I have recently put together a book based on this blog and while working on it, reread everything I have written since 1 March 2006, the day The Oxford Etymologist was launched. It is amazing how much richer my mail was fifteen, ten, and even five years ago. I used to “glean” my field once a month and return with a full load of etymological grain. Nowadays, I do not always have enough even after two months. Fortunately, when I make a mistake, someone always notices it. Every sign of life is welcome, and many thanks to such attentive readers. I am also grateful to those who occasionally write kind words about my short essays. Praise is a rare coin, and like most people, I prefer appreciation to abuse. Discussion of idioms seems to interest especially many people. But now that the University of Minnesota Press has brought out a cheap paperback (Take My Word for It), my explanatory and etymological dictionary of English idioms, there is no point in returning to this subject, unless someone sends a question about a puzzling phrase.

Words multiplying like mushrooms

A reader called my attention to the Hebrew word uhushboo-ot “a plague of boils” (Exodus 9; 2 and 10) and cited Latin būbō “swelling” and “owl.” The first sense was borrowed from Greek. The question was whether the similarity between Hebrew and Greek is the result of borrowing, and if so, from which language to which. One should add that at least some words belong to the common Indo-European and Semitic stock (those interested in this subject should consult the works by Saul Levin). It also seems that būbō1 and būbō2 are homonyms. In any case, in the Latin dictionary by Ernout-Meillet, they are given as two separate entries. Not being a specialist in Hebrew or Greek, I can only say that the word for “owl” is undoubtedly sound-imitating, like, for example, German Uhu “eagle-owl.”

This is a baboon. Sound-symbolic to us, it is perfectly natural to  itself.
(By X posid, public domain)

Whether the name of the disease is sound-imitating (so in Ernout-Meillet) is less clear, but for curiosity’s sake, I may cite the Indo-European root beu-, allegedly alternating with bheu-, found in words “loosely associated with swelling” (note that Indo-European b became p in Germanic, while bh– yielded b): pock, poke; bosom, big, bucket, buckle, boil, boast; bullet, and so forth. It is most probable that the idea of swelling does underlie the words cited above and quite a few more that I did not include in my list. But reference to a root like this can only mean that when people coined words referring to something big and round, they intuitively chose the complex bo– or boo– and produced more and more nouns and verbs. Besides, sound complexes like bobo and booboo are rather typical baby words, like the noun baby itself, and reference to babbling and baby language also occurs in a search for the origin of some b-b “complexes,” from baboon to bubble (bubble is perhaps sound-imitative, rather than sound-symbolic). The question about borrowing such “universal” words poses obvious difficulties.

In connection with my previous post on gr-words as mushrooms (25 January 2023), my colleague and friend Victor Fet reminded me of grok and of Danish rhyming aphorisms called grooks. He is especially fond of such coinages because of his lifelong interest in Lewis Carroll and his neologisms. Grok is now ubiquitous. Both words (see them in Wikipedia) are classic examples of sound symbolism. Of course, I knew them but did not want to overload my post with too many examples. By the way, the inventors of such neologisms (even they!) are sometimes unable to explain how they coined them.

This is a common problem with sound symbolism. Sound imitation is obvious. When someone says gr-gr, to frighten people (as one of the shopkeepers in Dickens’s David Copperfield did), there is nothing to explain, but sound symbolism seems to be realized in retrospect. It is a case of guilt by association. Nothing in the English consonantal group sl– suggests disgust, but the accumulation of words like slum, slops, slime, and sleazy colors our understanding of slack, sleuth, slattern, slippery, and the rest. Yet we have nothing against slippers, slings, and slender people. That is why reference to sound imitation in etymology arouses no objections, while sound symbolism is too evasive to clinch any argument in a search for word origins.

We like slender people, don’t we?
(“Ida Rubinstein” by Valentin Serov, 1910, Google Art Project, public domain)

English mo(u)ld ~ mildew and Greek

Mo(u)ld is an ancient word. Its cognates occur all over the Germanic-speaking word. Even Gothic mulda “dust” has been recorded. We have here a rather transparent noun with the suffix –d. Its quite probable cognate is Greek amalós “soft” (in its Latin shape, the root is known to English speakers from the verb mollify). Therefore, in mo(u)ld, we are dealing with related forms, rather than with a borrowing (however ancient) into Germanic from Greek.

Strawberry: etymology

See my post for 1 April 2015. Recently, a correspondent cited Icelandic strá “straw of grass” as a possible clue to the English word. William Sayers, an unimaginably prolific author (a list of his publications can be found online), offered an etymology (mentioned in my post), which is neither better nor worse than a few older ones. No one has explained why English replaced the traditional Germanic word for this fruit (earth-berry) by a new one. Without this explanation, that is, without reference to some event in real life, all the hypotheses will remain exercises in intelligent guessing. Children sometimes collect strawberries on straws. Do we need this tip?

Strawberries indeed!
(Public domain)

Three puzzles

Editor’s note: explicit language

  1. A Dublin newspaper for 1780s mentioned pinkendindies, which referred to gangs or perhaps a drinking club. Predictably, in my database, I was unable to find references to this word’s origin. But I wonder whether dandy (a Scottish word) provides a clue to dindies. (In the vocabulary, what is Scottish is often also North Irish.) The origin of dandy (also a Scottish word?) is obscure, though a good deal has been written about it. However, here we are interested not in the history of dandy but only in whether there may be some connection between dandy and dindy. Such a vowel change is not unthinkable in slang. Pinker is an occupational term. Websites gloss it as “butler” (not in Jamieson). Or there could be an obscure reference to the name Pinkerton.
  2. Cunt as an animal name (“mole”). Not in any regional dictionary I have consulted. Moles are called boars (males) and sows (females). A group of moles is a labo(u)r. I suspect that the usage our correspond found (from ?female mole to cunt) is idiosyncratic: a humorous individual coinage.
  3. Why do we say a pounce of cats? Pounce is a synonym of talon “a claw of a bird of prey.” Probably pounce in a pounce of cats, refers to cats’ claws.

Correction: pinkerdindies to pinkendindies

Featured image: “The plague in Winterthur in 1328.” Lithograph by A. Corrodi, Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Recent Comments


    About BUBO: Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature cites AVAVIT (with various Hebrew spellings) as swelling or heaviness. and extended meanings of vomiting or stomach sickness. He relates it to the more ancient root AV, thick, and cites an example from Genesis/Breishit Rabbah, written around 400 CE give or take a century. Certainly the Jewish sages borrowed Greek words aplenty – hard to know who has prior claim here.

  2. Richard Care

    I’ve always understood that strawberries were so named as straw is put under the growing fruit to deter the slugs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2LxkYWkIq8

    Perhaps German slugs don’t need the additional deterrent.

  3. Slim

    Many, many thanks, Mr. Liberman, for your columns in the OUPblog.
    I think you may have covered this fairly recently, but I can’t recall when.
    About the use of ’til’ to mean ’till’ (until).
    I’ve been doing this for the past forever years. It’s always made sense.
    Just found out, from Google, that in Old English (and Norse) what’s now till was til.
    Thanks again,

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